Artists, makers, curious people can make things happen. David Brooks writes in the recent article, "How Artists Change the World," that artists can "retrain the imagination" and change how our society sees the world, really make the world better by giving us new images to enlighten us.We hear the words "making the world a better place" and "social justice" a lot. The more I thought about this, the more the word "culture" came to mind. This semester, because the stars fell into place this way, I am teaching three different "cultures" of students: art school undergrads, general ed undergrads at a state university, and MFA art and writing students. Their needs are different. Their interests are different.
How does culture work? What is it? Why bother thinking about it? Each culture tends to have common beliefs, common sets of symbols, perhaps inside jokes, shared rituals (which may include candles and food, among other objects). A culture can be religious or linked to a geographical region, although neither overrides the other. It can also be a shared community or within a workplace, school, or centered around common interests. Firefighters have a culture. Chefs have a culture. Teachers share a culture. Art school students share a culture. Someone in each group can probably make at least one generalization, "We all do _______."
We can be part of many cultures and be satisfied with aspects of one but unhappy with parts of another. Here is where we as artists can help change stereotypes, unfair practices, poor treatment. We can depict, for instance, women in roles we want to see them in rather than the roles we are protesting. We can show an ideal world, present it with a positive spin. Re-write by remaking. Repetition works. It may take time, but it works.
As I was musing on this, I started looking for the word "culture" in the newspaper. "Widow of Steve Jobs Takes Stake in the Media," said one NYTimes article. In it, Mrs. Powell Jobs is quoted that she "believes in the power of storytelling to shape our culture and improve lives." She has invested in companies that have made films about immigration reform, the discovery and prosecution of abusive priests, companies that are working to rethink American high school, look at gun violence, and work to create more "content aimed at African-American and Hispanic audiences." These are companies working to write over old stereotypes and beliefs and create beneficial new views.
When two cultures can't agree, one needs to point out the problem first, then present the solution. But just pointing to the problem isn't good enough. The other side likely WILL NOT SEE IT. In a patriarchical society, for example, pointing to a woman not being allowed to vote, for example, will look normal to that society (and once it did look normal to American culture—in the 1800s). But showing the woman voting shakes up the belief system because that is not normal to that culture. (Sarah & Angelina Grimke took big hits for that one, and the suffragettes that followed did as well, until women voting became normal.)
In "Three Methods of Reform" in Pamphlets: Translated from the Russian (1900) translated by Aylmer Maude (29), Leo Tolstoy wrote"…in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself." We can change ourselves by looking deeply at our own beliefs and deciding if they are fair, deciding what is right and just for people outside our culture as well, and presenting imagery that shows this ideal. We know that hate works and is effective, but the culture of hate is not healthy for the culture of humanity.